Portland Organization Bringing Back Pay Phones, Without the ‘Pay’

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Portland Organization Bringing Back Pay Phones, Without the ‘Pay’

"Futel" phones let anyone make a call — here's why their creator thinks that's important in our increasingly digital age.

It looks like a regular pay phone, but unlike a regular pay phone, this one still works — and is free. (Photo courtesy Futel)

In 1999, the U.S. was home to roughly two million payphones. Today that number has dwindled to around 100,000 payphones, one-fifth of which are located in New York City alone. Thanks to the advent and ubiquity of the cell phone, operational payphones could soon become a thing of the past.

Or could they?

In Portland and Detroit, a former software engineer has set up a handful of phones that look like pay phones, but are free to use and offer much more than the ability to dial a number. Anyone can walk up to a phone and engage with a number of offerings, from one-touch dialing the mayor or chatting with a live volunteer operator to connecting with social services or checking voicemail. The phones also offer more whimsical options, like calling another phone set up in a rural community outside of Portland or ringing every viable payphone that still takes calls. A previous iteration would let callers dial ICE or Border Patrol detention centers (what Anderson describes as U.S. concentration camps) as well as the private companies that own and operate them.

These Futel — a play on the word “futile” — phones are the brainchild of Portland-based Karl Anderson, who says that his fascination with “urban furniture” and interpretation of pay phones as “one of the few public computer terminals that people used” sparked the project. In addition to keeping the iconic pay phone alive, “there was the social reason of just wondering who would use it,” Anderson says. He recalls hiring a homeless man who offered lawn mowing services to trim his grass, “but he couldn’t call me or get calls, so I thought, ‘Well, here’s someone who could use the phone.’’

Perhaps one of the most novel qualities of Futel phones in our increasingly digital world is their ability to be used anonymously. “The point, to me, is that it’s very accessible … You don’t need money or a trackable identity or a phone or an app or a registration to use it,” he says. “I’m not advertising. I don’t care who’s using it and I don’t need to put any barriers on it. You only have to be able to hear.” While Anderson doesn’t track who calls or is called outside of the pre-installed options, he does track the number of calls, which totaled over 11,000 last year. Dialing the mayor was a popular option.

Anderson pays for the project himself and with arts grants. While Futel meets many of the requirements of an art project — “the best description is situationalist,” he says — Anderson bristles a bit at Futel being described as art and any link that might make to “lofty ideas” and “fancy mission statements.” For him, the phones are something of a hacker project at its core, wrapped up in social services that help to poke holes in capitalism along the way.

Futel’s hardware — the phones — come most often from scrappers. Say a concrete worker is in charge of replacing some sidewalks in front of a convenience store. That sidewalk might have a decommissioned, abandoned phone. Anderson then programs them and readies them for installation. Most recently a phone was sent to Andy Didorosi, founder of the Detroit Bus Company, a nonprofit that uses a buy one, give one model to offer kids free rides to school. Once installed, the city will be home to two Futel phones.

“We have a lot of people in Detroit who don’t have access to technology or telecoms or are just generally disconnected from the fabric that we take for granted,” Didorosi says. “It’s heavy to go to social services and give personal information and hopefully you qualify as destitute enough. A lot of support is so conditional. Anyone can just walk up and use a [Futel] phone whether you make $0 or $100,000.”

Gallery: Futel Phone

As we spoke, Didorosi was looking at the phone Anderson had sent him, complete with labeling and detailed instructions for assembly. “I’m pretty techy but I think almost anyone could set it up,” he says. “I hope people who walk by find it useful. I hope people who are nearby know about it. We’re going to do our best to get the word out.”

He ends by noting that Futel squeezes the most out of every dollar it has and that it’s a great project to support if people are looking for help. Anderson is on the same page. “We’re always looking for more phones and locations and collaborations. I’ve got some possibilities for things that are not payphone-based, but the core will always be radical accessibility and a low barrier to entry,” he says.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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